Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and critic living in Charleston, South Carolina. He has written for Crisis, the American Journalism Review, and the Washington Post.
Toni Morrison pursues stylistic perfection in her tour de force on family, genealogy, hate, and love.
New York: Knopf, 2003
202 pp., $23.95
“Style is everything,” literary master Gustav Flaubert is frequently paraphrased as having said. In a famous series of letters to a mistress, Louise Colet, the great novelist articulated his dreams of style. “I envision a style: a style that would be beautiful, that someone will invent some day, ten years or ten centuries from now, one that would be rhythmic as verse, precise as the language of the sciences, undulant, deep-voiced as a cello, tipped with flame.” “Prose was born yesterday: you have to keep that in mind. Verse is the form par excellence of ancient literatures. All possible prosodic variations have been discovered; but that is far from being the case with prose.” “A good sentence should be like a good line of poetry–unchangeable, just as rhythmic, just as sonorous.” Again and again these letters–written during the composition of Madame Bovary–emphasize a chiseled ideal.
It isn’t pretentious to begin an essay on Toni Morrison’s Love by invoking the mastery of Flaubert. A Nobel laureate and one of the world’s major novelists, Morrison in book after book has proven that she is a preeminent stylist. From The Bluest Eye (1970) to Tar Baby (1981) to her last published novel, Love (2003), her readership has become accustomed to highly sculptured novels, not only in terms of the overall design but sentence for sentence, word for word. She writes the most thought-out prose in contemporary American letters.
A gulf of difference separates a nineteenth-century Frenchman and a living African-American feminist author. The language barrier makes it difficult to compare their styles; while both writers are attuned to “poetry,” their definitions of the poetic are influenced by their times, culture, and background. But this much they share–to a degree highly uncommon in a novelist (somewhat more common in short story writers) their prose achieves a diamond-like preciseness. The length of a novel ordinarily precludes a degree of grace. For Morrison, like Flaubert, each sentence is a highly informational composition intended to click into place and alignment beside previous sentences. Each sentence is a miniature work of art in itself.
Continuing the analogy with Flaubert, Morrison’s later works have drawn criticisms similar to those levied against Bouvard and Pecuchet. The skeptical analyses reached a pinnacle with the unusually ambivalent reaction to her immediately preceding novel, Paradise. In some minds, the novel fulfilled a negative tendency in Morrison’s writing; Paradise seemed Morrison’s own “book about nothing,” an exercise in free-floating themes and archetypal scenarios, lacking character, plot, or fixed center.
Worse, Paradise was the first book Toni Morrison published after winning the Nobel Prize. The critics had their knives sharpened: had the author fallen victim to Flaubertian ambitions? The common word used by disapproving critics was obscurantism. Paradise isn’t the book under discussion in this essay; Love is. But Love has also provoked some perplexed, or hostile, responses. I don’t believe that “obscurantism” does justice to Love. Morrison is testing the capacity of her talent, of her stylistic gift. This has, in my opinion, been the case with all her novels, before and after the Nobel Prize. While some of her books may have been more successful than others, her work is never self-indulgent.
A Faulknerian family melodrama
Defending herself against a hostile review, Morrison once commented, “People’s anticipation now more than ever for linear, chronological stories is intense because that’s the way narrative is revealed in TV and movies.” Her point should be well taken, no less so this time around.
Love has a syncopated sense of story structure and a plethora of characters of whom to keep track. The characters are introduced incrementally; their miniature stories blur in and out of focus. Love is a family drama: but who is related to who? The reader eventually finds that the principal characters, whether by marriage, birth, or friendship, led lives that revolved around the expectations of a Howard Hughes–like motel and resort magnate, Bill Cosey.
No surprise that when the narrative opens, Bill Cosey is already dead. No surprise that his survivors pathologically hate each other, and hate as well as adore the patriarch’s memory. No surprise that Cosey was an incarnate Zeus, difficult to like much less love, a manipulator, possibly a sex abuser. Love’s scenario is archetypal, mythic. The plot is a clothes hanger–used in the same way that Flaubert used a borrowed story to write The Temptations of St. Anthony. The hanger is garbed with penetrating resonances, assonances, and ideas. The real story is in the beauty of the telling.
The meaning is inseparable from artful writing of passages such as this:
“Our weather is soft, mostly, with peculiar light. Pale mornings fade into white noons, then by three o’clock the colors are savage enough to scare you – for better imagination, we can’t take a clear look within the range of 100 yards, even using the best rangefinder . Jade and sapphire waves fight each other, kicking up enough foam to wash sheets in. An evening sky behaves as though it’s from some other planet–one without rules, where the sun can be plum purple if it wants to and clouds can be red as poppies. Our shore is like sugar which is what the Spaniards thought of when they first saw it. Sucre, they called it, a name local whites tore up for all time into Sooker.”
Or metaphorical epigrams such as: “The two of us were like the back of a clock. Mr. Cosey was its face telling you the time was now.” Similar examples could be drawn from Love’s pages at random.
The intricate Cosey narrative spotlights three women: Heed, Cosey’s second wife; his daughter-in-law May; and his granddaughter Christine. There is also L., an ethereal presence. L. narrates large chunks of the novel in the first person, the voice of longing and nostalgia. And there is the latest addition, Junior–not a relative but a recently employed servant at the decaying Cosey estate. Least well drawn is Celestial, Cosey’s secret mistress.
The late, great Bill Cosey rose to renown and fortune in the 1940s. He was a rarity in his time–an influential black man. In the 1950s, integration sapped his power base. By the time he died, he was broken spiritually and financially set back, the victim of hubris as well as racism. Cosey is the archetypal “fallen man”–talented, charismatic, but spiritually impure. In his lascivious self-absorption he wed his second wife, Heed, when she was an eleven-year-old child. Heed was also his granddaughter Christine’s best friend.
Rather predictably for a story involving a powerful man and his women, a subplot involves Cosey’s lost will. To whom did he leave his possessions? For whom did he really care? But the way the story is told is the key, keeping the plot devices grandiose rather than cliched. Love has magic and a mythic structure that gradually becomes apparent.
In the early pages, Heed, who is now an elderly widow, hires Junior under false pretenses. Heed wants an ear, an amanuensis. Junior will listen to the Cosey story: hopefully, Junior will write it down. Perhaps consciously, perhaps not, Morrison has mirrored the opening of Absalom, Absalom–the William Faulkner novel in which Rosa Coldfield encourages young Quentin Compson to listen to her stories of ghosts of the past. The device opens the floodgates of history; at the same time, Absalom, Absalom is high Faulknerian melodrama. Similarly, in Love Morrison connects social history with intergenerational conflict. The plot is over-the-top and operatic. The emphasis upon family and memory is Faulknerian–but in Morrison’s hands the story is told with Flaubert’s sense of calculation.
A point of view opposing my good opinion can be found in Jonathan Yardley’s October 26 review in the Washington Post.
“Love is a clotted, tedious, uninviting novel … is capable of wit, tenderness and subtlety, but now she seems determined to make Major Statements rather than simply tell stories in which character and plot carry the thematic messages. The result, in Love–the very title of which has Major Statement written all over it–is not so much a work of fiction as an oration. Its characters exist not as discrete individuals but as embodiments of ideas, experiences, points on the spectrum of black experience. They engage neither one’s interest nor one’s sympathy.”
“This is not so much a novel as a work of exposition. … The expository passages in Love seem substitutes for narrative and character development that Morrison never manages to get off the ground. … No matter what literary avant garde would have us believe otherwise, themes must emerge naturally out of narrative and character rather than out of exposition; the novelist must show, not tell. Of course there are exceptions … but [in the particular case of Love] the result is something cluttered with ideas but devoid of feeling.”
Whereas I found mythology and poetry in Love, Yardley found an absence of feeling and dry passages. Yardley, I suspect, isn’t a terrific fan of Flaubert’s plotless, largely characterless Bouvard and Pecuchet. Or is it one of the exceptions? What about Virginia Woolf’s prose poetry masterpiece, To the Lighthouse?
Exposition, used pejoratively, suggests writing that leaves no strong sensory or emotional impression. It is hard to believe that a sensitive reader will not respond emotionally to the fine writing. Is this sentence exposition? “The ocean is my man now. He knows when to rear and hump his back, when to be quiet and simply watch a woman. He can be devious, but he’s not a false-hearted man. His soul is deep down there and suffering. I pay attention and know all about him. That kind of understanding can only come from practice, and I had a lot of that with Mr. Cosey.” Does this qualify as lifeless exposition? “Junior slid the tail of a fine-tooth comb through Heed’s hair, then filled each silver valley with a thick stream of Velvet Tress. She had lubricated each parting with Vaseline to take down the pain of its lye. Then she tipped Heed’s head gently–to and fro …” Was To the Lighthouse an expository wreck?
Love has flaws that stand in high relief, given its outstanding merits. The style is a whirlwind, leaving the reader breathless, but occasionally one awakes from the magic to discover that the plot itself is a little unbelievable. Cosey’s marriage to an eleven-year-old: wouldn’t this have garnered the attention of the police? Moreover, it is fairly late in the novel that the reader realizes that in certain scenes Christine and Heed were only eleven and twelve years old. They did not strike the reader as that young; neither convincingly reacted as children would–the subtleties of childhood are missing. Like others in Love, this plot stratagem has poetic suggestiveness, but on the level of simple credibility it pushes the envelope.
A liturgical performance
Yardley touches upon a related weakness when he calls the book an oration. Due to the refinement of the style, the stormy-weather blur of the language, the reader feels distanced from the events described. There are characters, places, dialogue, but the dominant voice remains that of Morrison herself. Morrison steals into the minds of these various characters, but as Yardley implies, there is never the sense often provided in a straightforward, realistic novel that the characters have spoken for themselves. This does not make Heed, May, Christine, and Cosey chess pieces; a better analogy would be voices in a choir. The culminative effect resembles a Passion play or, as I have written, a myth–a liturgical performance.
Love will not stand beside Morrison’s major works, but the novel is an accomplishment. Its complexities will continue to be argued over and analyzed. When the dust has settled, Love’s gem will shine brighter. I am especially convinced of this when I imagine the reviews the book might have received if it had been a first novel.
I don’t think there would have been cries that Love was too ambitious, dull, or pretentious. Most critics would have been grateful that it is still possible for artists to take risks, risks that might broaden the critical conception of literature. I don’t think many would have damned the novel for its contrivances; the critics would have argued over their success or failure, but more often than not in the context of commenting on Morrison’s unusual talent. I particularly don’t think anyone would have accused her of trying too hard to make major pronouncements. Instead, there would have been appreciation for an artist committed to literature, not entertainment.
Rather than finding the title Love pretentious–a bald statement of a theme–some might have considered why the novel, after all, is called Love. There is more ambiguity therein than at first glance. Love is less an obnoxious than a curious title. The slim novel contains so much frustration, as much hate as love, or perhaps only sick love. We see sexuality, carnality, familial envy, sufferance, and penitence; but how much love? This is another point of debate that awaits Love’s future critics.
Wellington, Darryl Lorenzo
–> Related news: The Art of Desire